In an op-ed column in last Sunday’s New York Times (Feb 18, 2012), Tom Friedman suggests that if Rick Santorum wins the Republican nomination, a third-party candidate for president would emerge, someone more moderate and reasonable, who could appeal to a larger constituency, and possibly beat Obama.
Friedman recommends David Walker, former the U.S. comptroller general under the G.W. Bush administration, for that role, because, according to Friedman, Walker says reasonable, moderate things about fiscal policy.
This idea demonstrates that Friedman misunderstands the current political climate, which has nothing to do with policies. Rather, the upcoming election is about self-identity. Republicans want a candidate who will represent who they think they are, plain working folks. They want someone who can stand up to the snooty elites in Washington who they think try to tell them how to live and what to believe. That’s what it’s about: identity, inclusion, and respect. It has nothing to do with fiscal policy or any other policy.
Virtually no normal person willingly accepts and enjoys a negative self-identity. Nobody will admit or declare, “I am an unschooled, uninformed, unintelligent, unskilled, ineffectual, fearful, dull-witted sheep in search of a shepherd. Help me.”
Instead, a person wants a self-identity that says “I am salt of the earth; embracing the real virtues, the ones endorsed by God, not Washington; I am humble, intuitive, honest, strong, brave, hard-working, steadfast, resilient, self-sufficient, abundantly possessed of common sense, imbued with wholesome, traditional values, rooted in the past, unimpressed by fancy arguments, statistics, or reasoning; and I won’t be bullied. Respect me.”
That’s what the Republican primary is about, identity, not policy differences or “principles.” If discussion were to shift to policy, there would be no meaningful distinction between self and other, which is tantamount to psychological self-annihilation for a person without a mature self-identity.
Rational discourse will only resume when the out-party feels included and respected, and therefore sufficiently safe from bullying and humiliation. Obama thought he could facilitate a bipartisan feeling, but he didn’t count on racism, which is not rational, nor the bifurcation of American society into those who could adapt to a rapidly changing world and those who cannot. He is, in fact, facilitating the eventual return to civil discourse, just by being in the office and conducting himself with dignity. A genuine return to rationality in the body politic could take a long time, generations, perhaps. It’s like growing up: nothing can be done to rush it.
Nevertheless, we should note, the current unpleasant and unhelpful atmosphere of irrational squawking is far, far better than the alternative kind of discourse we see in other parts of the world: guns and bombs.